Conceptualizing Trauma: Locating Trauma: A Critique of Ruth Leys's Trauma: A Genealogy

by Murray M. Schwartz

February 17, 2004


Using Ruth Leys's Trauma: A Genealogy as a vehicle, this essay examines the nature of traumatic experience. I critique the polarizations entailed in Leys's use of "mimetic theory," as developed by Rene Girard and Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen in order to show that the history of trauma theory developed by Leys is so structured as to miss the movement from early psychoanalytic formulations to the development of object-relational theories that can overcome the dualities Leys both reveals and accepts. Using Ferenczi, van der Kolk and Carruth as examples, I clarify the distinctions between traumatic experience, which resists narrative coherence, and traumatic events, which entail a conception of context and open the possibility of narration in historical time.


Locating Trauma: A Critique of Ruth Leys's Trauma: A Genealogy 

Murray M. Schwartz

"...analysis should lead to the sharing of a truth

supposed possible between the analyst and the

analysand, acknowledgement of which aids in their

mutual emancipation." 

Andre Green, "The Double and the Absent" (1973) 

We speak of trauma incessantly these days, so much so that when a recent story in The New York Times about troubles in the Catholic church casually refers to "the now familiar trauma of a sexual abuse scandal" (5/14/02), we may not pause to reflect on the many questions the phrase implies. In what sense can a trauma be "familiar? Is the scandal itself traumatic, the fact of its occurance, or is it the sexual abuse alone? For whom is this abuse traumatic? To what extent has the scandal simply occurred and in what ways is it a media creation, defined for its political and economic uses? And is not "abuse," like trauma, another term incessantly used to refer to or evoke an enormous variety of experiences? Elastic uses of loaded terms seem symptomatic of our times, and the list could go on. Add "addiction," for example, or "victim." The events of September 11, 2001 have certainly exacerbated the stretch marks of linguistic usage, but the problem of locating sources and meanings of overwhelming experiences and psychic dangers was felt urgently long before that disruptive day.

The burgeoning interdisciplinary literature on trauma is both a response to and a symptom of our times, and Ruth Leys' Trauma: A Genealogy, which appeared in 2000, aims to clarify central issues in the field. Her book is a densely argued intellectual effort in a field whose boundaries have yet to be firmly adjudicated. The history of thinking about trauma is replete with conflicts between differing assumptions, fundamental concepts and vocabularies, and Leys consistently displays a remarkable ability to navigate some of the most intricate confluences and ramifications of psychological, psychoanalytic, psychiatric, neurobiological and literary critical writings spread over more than a century. Her historical scholarship is wide and deep, and her powers of lucid explication can be truly formidable. Allan Young, author of The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (1995), provides a blurb calling Leys' book "a fascinating voyage of intellectual discovery." In many respects it is easy to agree with him. Leys identifies and explores some of the most knotty recurrent issues in modern trauma theories from pre-Freudian writings to very recent reconceptualizations by Bessel van der Kolk and Cathy Caruth of the nature of traumatic experiences and therapeutic responses to them. A critique of her book will give us access to many of the central issues in theorizing trauma.

As her title indicates, Leys' book is not a narrative history, and I cannot fully share Young's opinion that it is "a pleasure to read." My responses to reading Trauma: A Genealogy are considerably more mixed, and this is not only because her material is extraordinarily rich, complex and open to a variety of interpretations. From the beginning, Leys intermixes history and theory in problematic ways. What is a genealogy? This is what Leys says: 

    I do not proceed as if trauma has a linear, if interrupted, historical development. Rather, I shall take a genealogical approach to the study of trauma, in an effort to understand what Michel Foucault has called 'the singularity of events outside any monotonous finality' and in order to register their recurrence, as he put it, not for the purpose of tracing 'the gradual curve of their evolution but to isolate the different scenes where they engaged in different roles.' (8)  

This is not my dictionary's definition of genealogy, which is based on the organic metaphor of a family tree in which branches are descendant from and inseparable from common roots. The organic concept of genealogy describes unities that unfold in time. There is no unity to be found, however, in the conflicted and often mutually incompatible assumptions of trauma theories as Leys investigates them. She deals with the ways in which trauma theories have repeatedly led to unresolved problems, impasses, or -- in the vocabulary of deconstruction -- aporias.

But putting idiosyncratic definitions aside, Leys' Foucauldian notion of genealogy turns out to be an "oscillation," as she calls it, between two poles or "paradigms" of experience. The "paradigms" have an intellectual genealogy of their own. The initiating idea was fathered by Rene Girard, and passed down to Ruth Leys by Mikkhel Borch-Jacobsen. In Violence and the Sacred (1972), to take one instance, Girard explores a tragic dynamic of violence in which the actors endlessly define themselves by both imitating and repudiating the other, their "monstrous double," as in a revenge cycle. In terms of human relating, this is like saying that I am myself only because I am not you, and I must violently repudiate you in order to be myself, hence you and I are engaged in a "mimetic rivalry." Furthermore, since in this view the achievement of selfhood or individual identity is wholly based on imitation of others, an individual or a society can only establish living continuity by displacing its violent repudiation of the other on to symbolic substitutes or scapegoats. We are all too familiar with the ways individuals and cultures fall in to this dynamic of identity maintenance. There are important similarities and differences between Girard's concept and questions about the nature of narcissism and the origins of human identity formation in psychoanalytic theory. In fact, Girard endlessly argues with Freud and psychoanalysis, which he limits almost entirely to Freud's texts.

In his first reading of Freudian psychoanalysis, The Freudian Subject (1988) Borch-Jacobson used his version of this Girardian idea of mimetic rivalry in an attempt to explain some of the knottiest theoretical and interpersonal struggles of the early Freudian movement. He then reversed himself in Remembering Anna O: A Century of Mystification (1996), and other works, claiming that conscious simulation rather than unconscious imitation accounts for hysterical enactments like those of Bertha Pappenheim, Freud's Anna O.

As Girard and Borch-Jacobsen use the term, "mimesis" is not the "representation of reality" that Erich Auerbach, following Aristotle, envisioned in his classic work, Mimesis (1953). Rather, Girard and Borch-Jacobsen conceive mimesis or imitation as a state in which the distinction between self and other either does not exist or is erased, as in hypnotic "possession," where the hypnotized subject is presumed to be wholly subordinated to the will and authority of the hypnotizer. "Possession," Girard wrote, "is an extreme form of alienation in which the subject totally absorbs the desires of another." (1972, 165). "Hysterical mimesis" in this sense is thus prior to self-object differentiation both developmentally and relationally. In fact, this version of mimesis precludes the possibility of mutual relating or intersubjectivity, and instead reduces interplay of self and other to imposition or "suggestion," like the lieu-tenancy that Iago practices on the all-too-receptive Othello. This is the mimesis that proponents of the false memory syndrome charge is practiced by psychotherapists who "implant" memories of satanic abuse.

The mimetic paradigm thus entails a linguistic equivocation: imitation becomes the same as absence of self, mimesis becomes sameness, in the most fundamental sense ("originary," in Ley's vocabulary). This is an imitation in which there is no subject to do the imitating. This paradoxical formulation, in turn, entails two consequences: first, because the hypnotically possessed subject is unaware of a subject-object distinction, experiences in this state are presumed to be "constitutively unavailable for subsequent representation and recall" (9), and, second, all forms of imitation are collapsed into one. The mimetic paradigm, in other words, allows for no degrees, no shadings, no mental hierarchies, no transitional states. It recognizes no difference between archaic or primary process and secondary process modes of experience. The mimetic idea states only a limit case, an extreme theoretical possibility beyond the actuality of any social interaction, even the most rudimentary. By definition, mimetic identification is or is not. One is either hypnotizer, suggestor, aggressor or hypnotized, suggestee, victim. Furthermore, mimetic identification is the same as mimetic rivalry, because the mimetic "relation" is thought to be inherently ambivalent. (It is interesting to note that the word "river," a boundary, is related to "rive," a tearing apart, as if the establishment of a self-other distinction in this way of thinking were the same as a violent riving in a traumatic moment.) The theory itself can be seen as a highly abstract version of an unresolvable narcissistic dilemma, an enactment of the dilemma it is intended to explain.

At the other pole of Leys' genealogical oscillation is "anti-mimesis." She also calls it "the anti-mimetic turn within the mimetic theory" (37). When Borch-Jacobsen reversed positions, he "[took] his argument in a radically revisionary direction." (164) The "anti-mimetic" idea or "paradigm" conceives of trauma "as if it were a purely external event coming to a sovereign if passive victim" (10, italics added). "Anti-mimesis," establishes "a strict dichotomy between the autonomous subject and the external trauma." (9). The "anti-mimetic" position is the mirror image of the "mimetic" position. In this position, all forms of what Roy Schafer calls "reflective self consciousness" (1968) collapse into one, all degrees of autonomy become "sovereign" instances of an absolute subject-object difference. All forms of self-object differentiation are described as "an already consitituted ego" (37). In the "anti-mimetic" paradigm, the hypnotized person follows the suggestions of the hypnotizer in a completely "conscious, consensual and voluntary fashion" (165). Like a mirror image, the anti-mimetic position is both the reversal of and the same as the mimetic position. It is a reversal in the sense that the subject is now imagined to be a totally autonomous self facing a totally external reality, rather than a totally obliterated or absent self facing an omnipotent other who programs the subject's actions. The "anti-mimetic" position is the same in the sense that the subject again disappears, this time into pure "acting." The hypnotic imitation thus becomes "simulation," "lying" or "fraud," a kind of pure theatricality in which the difference between theatrical acting and anything we might call authentic relating collapses into an identity.

Leys sees that Borch-Jacobsen is caught in an endless oscillation or circularity, as are all theories that attempt to locate the source of traumatic violence either totally internal to the traumatized subject or totally outside, in the world conceived as entirely separate from the human subject. Like a magic trick, the anti-mimetic definition of hypnosis makes hypnosis disappear in the act of defining it. As Leys puts it, Borch-Jacobsen's anti-mimetic paradigm "involves a sleight of hand" (170). In her fifth chapter, entitled "The Hysterical Lie: Ferenczi and the Problem of Simulation," Leys makes a long detour in order to expose the fraudulent logic of Borch-Jacobsen's revised position. She shows in detail how the merger of self and other in the mimetic paradigm and the absolute difference between them in the anti-mimetic paradigm both collapse in paradox. In short,Leys has shown that in either paradigm, psychic life of the individual evaporates.

Where is Leys in relation to these paradoxes? She recognizes that the choice of either pole is untenable, but she sees no other possibility in her historical material. After brilliantly elaborating on the unresolvable contradictions in Borch-Jacobsen's "anti-mimetic" reversal, she writes: 

I want to make it clear that although I am myself not in agreement with Borch-Jacobsen's views, I do not wish to argue that he is simply mistaken, and the opposite of what he now believes to be the truth about hypnosis is in fact the case. Rather, I want to claim that with respect to the episodes and cruxes treated in this book the tensions or oscillation between mimesis and anti-mimesis I have been tracking cannot be definitively resolved by choosing one over the other. (180-181) 

No matter that Borch-Jacobsen's arguments, "for all their forcefulness, are marked by simplifications that beg important questions and by internal contradictions that tend to undermine the coherence of his views" (181). Leys still wants to use these ideas as the framework for her book, claiming that there is no other option in the history of trauma theory. I do not believe that calling her position disingenuous is too strong a characterization. In fact, she shows that her own framework is no less inadequate than, in her view, are all the trauma theories she examines in such learned detail. Like a good deconstructionist, she wants to be committed and uncommitted at the same time, and in order to do so, she has to assert that the only alternative to the untenable mimetic paradigm is the anti-mimetic paradigm.

Of course the oscillation between Leys' and Borch-Jacobsen's poles is unresolvable, because each pole describes an impossible limit of human identity. Her polarity is not actually comprised of two paradigms, but simply describes a self-perpetuating complementarity between psychotic states and omnipotent fantasies. A paradigm, according to my dictionary, is "an explanatory model or conceptual framework that permits the explanation and investigation of phenomena." Leys bypasses the task of explanation, claiming that there is none available. Her book "frames" the history of trauma in both senses of the word, by selecting those materials that either illustrate her thesis or by interpreting her materials only in ways that can only confirm her framework. Fortunately, her own intelligence and sensibility as a reader frequently come to her rescue, and Trauma: A Genealogy ends up as a hybrid of historical insight, sensitive reading and repetition of the theoretical confusions she explores in her subject matter.

To illustrate the hybrid character of Trauma: A Genealogy, I will explore two examples in some detail. The first is Leys' reading of Ferenczi's struggle to understand trauma. In her fourth chapter, "Imitation Magic: Sandor Ferenczi and Abraham Kardiner on Psychic Trauma," Leys lucidly explicates the challenge these men posed to Freud's model of drive vs. defense, calling their insights " corrosive" and "subversive" (125), as they were most certainly perceived at the time. Michael Balint remarked that the Freud-Ferenczi controversy "acted as a trauma on the psychoanalytic world." (quoted in Young-Bruehl, 2002,3). Following Ferenczi and the Freud of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, "Kardiner identified the essential deficit in trauma as a sudden paralysis of the functions of the ego by which perceptual recognition, orientation, and mastery were achieved" (143). This formulation contradicted the orthodox idea that traumatic experiences could be explained as the ego's defenses against sexual desires. But the conflict between Ferenczi and Kardiner, on the one hand, and Freud's drive theory, on the other, had deeper roots, and would not be resolved only by following Freud's way of moving beyond the pleasure principle.

Leys also shows clearly that Ferenczi vacillated between two different models of human identity, which she calls "originary" and "postoriginary." The "originary" model posits a totally undifferentiated "unity" of subject and world at the beginning of life. The ego emerges as the result of a "splitting" of this unity into a subject-object opposition, a violent divorce that forever destroys the repose of infantile unconsciousness. In the "originary" model all human development and relating is founded on a traumatic fall from Edenic oneness. This model fits the "mimetic" theory, because the world acts as an aggressor, imposing a universe of objects on the unformed and unprotected subject. From the perspective of this model, Ferenczi could only view memory as "a collection of scars of shocks in the ego" (quoted on 126). Ferenczi's brilliant formulations regarding "identification with the aggressor" are tied in this model to inherent and irremediable developmental forces. Leys rightly calls this theory "a traumatogenesis of normality" (130).

The "postoriginary" model posits an ego from the beginning of life. Now the splitting of the ego takes the form of a divorce between affect and representation. Ferenczi's controversial technical innovations, which scandalized Freud because at times they involved kissing or touching, were attempts to heal this split in severely disturbed patients, such as those suffering from tics (tiqueurs). Such patients lacked the capacity to relate to external objects and could not be cured by abreactive techniques. At the level of theory, Ferenczi did not succeed in finding a stable way of conceptualizing the narcissistic dilemma these patients exhibited. How could there be an ego and no ego at the same time? How could one exist as a separate person and still have no relation to objects? As Leys expounds in a beautiful analysis, Ferenczi's revision of the myth of Medusa in the Clinical Diary confused the roles of Perseus and Medusa. In the myth, it is Perseus who holds up a mirror to deflect the Medusa's monstrous gaze, but in Ferenczi's revision Medusa's horrible face is seen as the mirror, and Perseus can only mimic or imitate the aggressor. In other words, Ferenczi was caught up in the same confusion of subject and object he was attempting to understand. In so far as he remained within this confusion, he could only explain the differentiation of the ego as a defensive reaction to a traumatizing maternal figure, a reaction that left the ego permanently grimacing in ironic imitation of its originary moment.

In her fifth chapter, "The Hysterical Lie: Ferenczi and the Problem of Simulation," Leys carries her analysis further. If the ego is born of trauma and inseparable from it, the therapeutic process is doomed to failure. But if the ego is shaped by the lies and deceits of the adult world, then the therapeutic process might take the form of a corrective emotional experience, to use Franz Alexander's terminology. In Leys' summary of Ferenczi: "It is the fact that human beings lie which makes the human infant first realize that there is an external world, separate from him: thus the development of the ego - its splitting off as an independent entity from the objective world - is caused by the mendacity of other human beings" (155n). But here Ferenczi encountered another impasse. In both his "originary" and "postoriginary" models, the subject is identified with the lies of adults (all those Medusas!). In the "originary" model, the adult world traumatically violates the original unity, and the response is mimicry of the aggressor. In the "postoriginary" model, the ego is split into an observing part, on the one hand, which watches over the victimized infant like a "wise baby" and is identified (albeit affectlessly and impersonally) with the aggressor, and into a victimized part, on the other hand, which enacts its pain in the form of corporeal, hysterical symptoms.

As a consequence of this split between intellectual knowledge and affective conversion, patients could not be trusted to remember or credibly recount the origins of their traumatic experience. If Ferenczi's portrayal of the ego's birth in trauma seems to confirm the "mimetic" hypothesis, his position regarding the patient's "simulation" seems to confirm the "anti-mimetic" turn. At this point, it appears that Leys could say "Q.E.D. I told you there are only oscillations, only therapeutic and theoretical double binds!"

But it is Leys and not all trauma theories that find no way out of the double-binds she describes with such intellectual precision. The self is not the sum of its identifications, and the observing ("simulating") ego is not an "already consistitued subject" (125) facing a purely "external" malignant world. For example, when Ferenczi's patient Clara Thompson confessed to covert "acting," she was doing so, in her words, "in order to win the analyst's approval," (quoted in Leys, 161, italics added). In other words, her deliberate acting occurred within the context of an idealizing transference, and her conscious simulation was the mark of compliance with an imaginary other. Leys and Borch-Jacobsen rewrite the evolution of the self as the attainment of an ideal beyond the reach of human interaction, assuming that a lifelong process is a once-and-for-all occurrance.

In the words of Hans Loewald, "the self, in its autonomy, is an atonement structure, a structure of reconciliations" (1980, 394) between inner and outer. As such, it is never "fully constituted." Because Leys is herself caught up in the oscillations she exposes, she fails to recognize the direction of Ferenczi's thought. Ferenczi brilliantly described extreme experiences that would be theorized by D.W. Winnicott as forms of "false self" organization, ways in which infants react to severe impingements from the human environment, imprisoning their capacity for transformation in static identifications with the aggressor. The way out of the double-bind would be a fundamental change in conceptualizing the earliest relationships, a movement from one-person to two-person psychoanalytic theories which could resolve the narcissistic dilemmas that Leys succumbs to even as she explicates them. In short, Leys completely misses the significance of the object-relations theories that transcend her polarities. In the framework of these theories, Lewis Aron and Adrienne Harris, drawing on Ferenczi, write, "the analytic situation is constituted by the intersubjective exchange, a 'dialogue of the unconsciousness' of two separate persons, each of whom is both subject and object to the other." (Aron and Harris, 1993, 10-11)

There is no consideration in Trauma: A Genealogy of the Budapest School, the work of Michael and Enid Balint, Imre Herman, among others. There is no acknowledgement of the Hungarians' common recognition "that human beings are born with an instinct for relatedness to their human caretakers" (Young-Bruehl, 2002,15). The infantile subject is interactive from the beginning. This view is summarized by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl: 

      The child makes its world familiar and unfrightening by identifications. At the same time, its inner world fills with identifications, with the actions, words, and unconscious affective transmissions of the people around, so that it will be either love-filled, if they are loving, or hate-filled if they are hating, or - as is usual - a confusing mixture, to which the child adds its own mix of fantasy. (2002,13) 

Here traumatic experiences are neither inner nor outer, but the manifestation of ways of reconciling (or attempting to reconcile) inner and outer under impinging or hateful conditions. Clearly, this view of human identity does not fit the false "mimetic/anti-mimetic" dichotomy. From this vantage point, there are no lost certainties to be recovered, to paraphrase Gregory Kohon (1999).

In addition to the work of the Budapest School, we could construct other, interlocking genealogies (in the organic sense of the term) all of which articulate creative theoretical responses to the dilemmas Freud and Ferenczi struggled unsuccessfully to resolve. These would include, among many others, D.W. Winnicott, Wilfred Bion, Anna Freud and the British Independent Group (e.g., Masud Khan, Christopher Bollas and Gregorio Kohon), Heinz Lichtenstein and Hans Loewald in the tradition of European/American ego psychology, Andre Green, possibly the most important French theorist of his generation, and such contemporary writers as Jessica Benjamin and Jonathan Lear. Trauma: A Genealogy does not consider the work of any of these writers. Yet each of them situates traumatic experience within a larger framework than Leys and Borch-Jacobsen imagine.  

My second example is Leys' reading of recent trauma theories as they are embodied in the work of Bessel van der Kolk and Cathy Caruth. In her final chapters, Leys takes aim specifically at the claim that traumatic memories are "literal," "veridical," and "accurate" repetitions of actual events or experiences in the past. (Lack of consistency about the differences between events and experiences plagues Leys' writing as well as the work of many of her subjects.) In Leys' view, the "absolutely crucial element" in van der Kolk's position is the claim that traumatic "nightmares, so-called flashbacks, and other reenactments" must be understood as such literal repetitions, as if they were engravings or imprints, like a photograph or like the physical impression of a hand in cement. Having stated van der Kolk's position in this way, Leys marshals an impressive array of laboratory evidence and scientific opinion in qualification or refutation of it, including inconsistencies of _expression in van der Kolk's own work. Her intention is to show that his characterization of traumatic reenactments as - and here Leys is quoting Caruth -- "absolutely true to the event" (239) or as undistorted presentations of historical experience, stands on shaky ground, even as it has become deeply entrenched in some current trauma theories. Leys' skepticism extends to the neurophysiological evidence as well, which she deems "weak" (258). At bottom, Leys objects to the idea of "unrepresented" experience. She writes, "We might put it that the entire theory of trauma proposed by van der Kolk and Caruth is designed to preserve the truth of the trauma as the failure of representation - thereby permitting it to be passed on to others who can not only imaginatively identify with it but literally share in the communion of suffering." "Representation" is thus contrasted with undistorted historical veridicality (253).

Leys aims to discredit van der Kolk in part because she is deeply offended by the theoretical position of Cathy Caruth. Because van der Kolk and Caruth express support for one another's views and occasionally use one another's language, Leys focuses on the areas of intersection and overlap in their writings. Even more tellingly, at key points in her argument, Leys deliberately quotes Caruth's language as a way of summarizing van der Kolk's position regarding "literality." This is because Leys wants to claim that "the entire force of recent work on trauma is to propose that traumatic relivings are exact and automatic repetitions of traumatic reality" (228).

Consider the following passage from Caruth's Trauma: Explorations in Memory:

      The returning traumatic dream startles Freud because it cannot be understood in terms of any wish or unconscious meaning, but is, purely and inexplicably, the literal return of the event against the will of the one it inhabits. Indeed, modern analysts as well have remarked on the surprising literality and nonsymbolic nature of traumatic dreams and flashbacks, which resist cure to the extent that they remain, precisely, literal. It is this literality and its insistent return which thus constitutes trauma and points toward its enigmatic core: the delay or incompletion in knowing, or even in seeing, an overwhelming occurance, that then remains, in its insistent return, absolutely true to the event...The traumatized, we might say, carry an impossible history within them, or they become themselves the symptom of a history that they cannot entirely possess. (1995, 231) 

To my mind, Caruth's rhetoric is extremely eloquent, with emphasis on both words, but it can be as misleading as it is illuminating. Certain equations are implicit in her language: literal=true=nonsymbolic. I would summarize as follows: The concrete return in the dream of the traumatic experience for the traumatized person is equated with an historical event as seen from the perspective of an observer. But in the first experience of trauma, there is no awareness of event, no consciousness of repetition, but only concreteness and sameness. The time of the original traumatic moment seems eternal, and it can only be recognized as a repetition from the perspective of a consciousness that maintains a capacity to distinguish past, present and future. The repetition of the experience seems "veridical" because it is not open to symbolic elaboration. Traumatic experience is enacted as foreclosed metaphor (Modell, 2002). As Terence Des Pres put it in The Survivor: Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps, "In extremity, states of mind become objective, metaphors tend to actualize, the word becomes flesh" (1977, 205). The repetitive enactment is "true" to the experience only in the sense a carpenter would use the term to designate a "true" measurement, not in the sense that it is more real. Both Caruth's traumatic "truth" and Leys' "traumatic reality" obscure distinctions in the act of making them.

Does Leys' summary do justice to van der Kolk's writings? I think not. To claim that very intense or prolonged emotional responses can result in permanent brain lesions that explain the biological basis for the "timeless and unmodified" features of post-traumatic experiences such as bodily sensations and visual flashbacks is different from claiming that such experiences are simply "unrepresented." Leys wants to assimilate van der Kolk to the anti-mimetic idea that trauma is purely "external." In my view, she is imprisoned by too narrow a view of mental life. She understands representation only within the conflict/repression model of symbolic transformation or distortion of unconscious, motivated action. But the inadequacies of this model are what led to new ways of thinking about trauma after the catastrophic combat experiences of World War I. Her use of terms - "traumatic reality" vs. "representation" - confuses the nonsymbolic psychosomatic re-presentations of the traumatized subject with literal representation of historical events, which is impossible.

To be sure, in some papers van der Kolk may exaggerate the extent to which such "iconic" or "indexical" psychic registrations of combat experience in certain dreams duplicate the experience of the past in exact detail, and he may not recognize indications in the dream reports of interactions between past and present concerns of the dreamer. He is not claiming, however, that traumatic symptoms testify to "the existence of a pristine and timeless historical truth undistorted or uncontaminated by subjective meaning, personal cognitive schemes, psychosocial factors, or unconscious symbolic elaboration" (7). Leys is the one conflating historical truth and memory of traumatic experience, whereas van der Kolk wants to understand the way in which traumatic experiences of timeless repetition fail to become integrated into autobiographical or historical forms of memory. Interpreters of laboratory experiments involving dreams seem to be talking past one another. If one says, "Exact replica!" and the other says, "No, manifest content!" further experiments are very unlikely to settle the matter, because the awake report of a dream (a representation of the dream experience) which includes the dreamer's "eidetic" return to a past traumatizing scene is by definition the manifest content of the dream, in so far as an interpreter adopts this Freudian vantage point. The question becomes whether this is the best or only vantage point to adopt.  

As Susan Brison points out in Aftermath (2002), an elegantly lucid account of her own undeniably traumatic experience of being brutally beaten and raped, "context" is not a given feature of historical explanation, but is constructed for particular reasons and supported by shared assumptions about reality that make it possible to have verifiable evidence. Even the agreement that an "event" has occurred requires a degree of reflective self-representation. But the sense of a reliable "context" or explanatory holding environment is what traumatic experience damages or destroys, depending on the severity of the experience, and when "context" is damaged, so is the semantic or linking capacity which underlies what Antonio Damasio (1999) calls the "autobiographical self." Van der Kolk is aware of this. Leys cites an essay by van der Kolk and his coauthor Mark Greenberg:

      Amnesia can occur when traumatic experiences are encoded in sensorimotor or iconic form and therefore cannot be easily translated into symbolic language necessary for linguistic retrieval. It is plausible that in situations of terror, the experience does not get processed in symbolic/linguistic forms, but tends to be organized on a sensorimotor or iconic level - as horrific images, visceral sensations, or fight/flight reactions...The essence of trauma is that it leaves people in a state of 'unspeakable terror.' ...These various cognitive formulations provide a model for the pathologies of memory associated with psychological trauma without resorting to the psychoanalytic notions of motivated forgetting, censorship, and repression. (quoted on 248-249, italics added) 

But note how Leys rewords this passage to imply a rigid polarity between traumatic possession and "semantic-linguistic-verbal representation": 

      On this basis van der Kolk and Greenberg suggest that, since the traumatized individual is possessed by images, bodily sensations, and emotions that are dissociated from all semantic-linguistic-verbal representation, such images or memories may not be retrievable by verbal methods of cure but only by therapies of nonlinguistic or 'iconic' kind. (249, italics added) 

She has turned the distinction between iconic encoding vs. availability for symbolic elaboration into a polarization of representation (as she understands if) vs. literal reproduction of past experience. In effect, she is accusing van der Kolk of a naďve kind of phenomenology. But the answer to a naďve phenomenology is not necessarily the classical Freudian dynamic unconscious (Stein, 2001).

Similarly, when van der Kolk writes, "Merely uncovering memories is not enough; they need to be modified and transformed (i.e. placed in their proper context and reconstructed in a personally meaningful way)," Leys suspects that he advocates "falsifying the traumatic origin" (251). She has imposed her terms on his argument. And so they talk past one another, in a linguistic dance not unlike arguments of a couple in a divorce proceeding. To my mind, Leys' language simply does not map on to van der Kolk's models of memory.

Now, a very curious and frustrating feature of Leys' book is that she, too, is aware of the arguments against the very "paradigms" and polarities she has adopted to structure her material. She knows that the distinction between context and experience collapses in traumatic moments. She knows that "suggestion" is used equivocally by those who would deny the possibility of unconscious motivation. She knows that to choose either of Borch-Jacobsen's versions of the mimetic or antimimetic positions leads to theoretical incoherence and therapeutic nihilism, psychosis or the illusion of omnipotence. At the end, Leys calls for "an intelligent, humane, and resourceful pragmatism...without worrying too much about the exact fit between practice and theory" (307), but her choices of material and her way of reading work to undermine that hope. Trauma: A Genealogy is a brilliant and important book, but it is limited to the extent that Leys is "subdu'd/ to what [she] works in, like the dyers hand," as Shakespeare says in Sonnet 111. This limit is the danger of all trauma theories. Confusion about or denial of interplay between of inner and outer, our experience as subjects and our (ever limited) ability to narrate that experience as history are what lead to endless oscillation. It is good enough theories that address the place where we live. 


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1. An earlier version of this essay appeared in American Imago, 59, Fall 2002.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Murray M. Schwartz "Conceptualizing Trauma: Locating Trauma: A Critique of Ruth Leys's Trauma: A Genealogy". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available May 24, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: December 29, 2003, Published: February 17, 2004. Copyright © 2004 Murray M. Schwartz